Gene drives have gained a huge audience since the nascence of the theory just eighteen months ago. ‘Gene drives’ are pieces of domineering DNA that can change the genome of an entire species, the proliferation of which could have massive impacts on agriculture and genetic engineering.
Widely implemented through use of the CRISPR gene editing technique, gene drives overpower usual Mendelian genetic theory whereby traits can be diminished and rejuvenated in a population. Instead, the specific gene in the gene drive persists in every individual’s genome so the trait is passed to all offspring. Overcoming even the mechanics of natural selection, the specific gene will remain in the genome even if it confers a disadvantage to the species. This could have drastic effects on species ecosystems; this has the potential to be beneficial in eliminating large cohorts of pest and parasitic species, however, due to the power of the technology even a minor oversight in the process could be fatal to otherwise peaceful and beneficial ecosystems.
The impressive speed at which this theory has been materialised into a viable solution perhaps highlights the urgency of finding ways of reducing and eventually removing the devastating effects of diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus, as well as ensuring the safety crop yields in light of global food shortages.
As with any revolutionary development, we can be confident in the intended positive effects but there is no way of assessing the scale and genre of any negative implications there may be, and uncontrolled cultivation of genes may lead to widespread extinction or even more disease. Despite this, resistance for gene drives supposedly evolves in but a few generations, so even if one begins to cause issues there is the reassurance that it will stop spreading after a short time. As it stands, developers still need more information before being able to implement the first viable production of gene drives.
Journal reference: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/06/06/057281